Parenting Multiple Children, When One Has Special Needs
By Adrienne Jones
I was in the waiting room at my youngest son Carter’s therapist’s office in January 2011 when my cell phone rang. I answered and heard the voice of Jacob, my 18-year-old son, his voice choked with fear and pain, telling me that he couldn’t find a job. “I put in tons of applications and I didn’t even get a single interview! You know how bad I’m doing at school, but I really, really tried last semester, Mom. I don’t even think I can graduate this year. I’m going to end up working at fast food restaurants my whole life.”
He began to cry, and I was broken hearted at the despondency in his voice. I wanted nothing but to sit down next to him and reassure him, then help him explore options. I wanted to be with him, to be his mom.
Just as I began murmuring words of love and support (You are smart. We’ll find something. I’m here to help you.), Carter’s therapist tapped me on the shoulder. He had the look on his face that I dread, the one that tells me life has to pause for awhile so I can keep my youngest son safe. My littlest child, the one whose brain got broken before he was born, the one who we all love deeply but who needs much more than we can give.
The one who stole two kids’ mom and one kids’ stepmom.
When Carter’s therapist tapped my shoulder, I froze for a second. This child, or that one? I cannot meet both needs, yet both needs are urgent.
“Jacob, I’m so sorry, but I have to call you back. I’m at Carter’s appointment and his therapist needs to talk to me.”
“Whatever, Mom,” and the phone was dead in my ear.
I’m not quite sure when Jacob’s patience ran out. He was eight when Carter was born and as Carter cried through his first year, Jacob was frustrated. While Carter cried through his second year, he began to get angry. When I began to crumble emotionally during Carter’s third year, Jacob began to develop a resentment that only grew as his brother got sicker and I was less and less available for homework help, dinner cooking, and even simple conversation.
These days, I take Carter to about 100 appointments a year, including lab draws. In his early years, I took him to three times as many, often dragging another child (or 2, or 3) along with me because babysitters were in short supply. They rode to appointments to the sound of their brother’s screams, they sat in boring waiting rooms and tried to occupy themselves with books and games, and they rode home while their brother continued to howl in his carseat.
They asked me for help with homework and I tried to give explanations, Carter in a sling on my chest and wailing so loudly that I had to shout my descriptions of what adverbs do or how to solve for x.
I was at the psychiatrist’s office with Carter when my daughter Abbie (13 at the time) called me from home. “Mom, I think I broke my leg! Please, can you come home Mommy? Please? I really need you,” she begged from the place in our driveway where she had fallen.
Of course I went to her, but her pleading had torn something in me. A child who is hurt should not have to beg for her mother’s presence; her mother should come running. Her fear that I might not come shocked me.
Parenting multiple children tears parents in many directions sometimes, even if all the children are healthy and developing typically. When one or more of the children has out-size needs, though, the parents must make out-size decisions, and the children must make out-size sacrifices (often unknowingly and unwillingly).
During his first three years, Carter was virtually inconsolable by anyone but me (and even with me, he cried hour after everlasting hour), so my older kids missed my presence at their plays, band concerts, and games. I skipped Parents’ Night at school, or left early because Carter was disruptive with his screaming.
During Carter’s preschool and early school years, they missed having a mom because I was exhausted to the point of near collapse for weeks and months at a time. They stayed home alone too often because it was better than dragging them along to yet more long, boring appointments. Throughout it all, they lost sleep because Carter has severe sleep issues and until recently (and sometimes, even now) he was never awake and quiet at the same time.
Carter has been relatively stable for almost three years now, and in that time I have begun working to repair my relationships with my other children, but much damage, much of it likely irreparable, has been done. They lost their mom during some crucial years of childhood, and while I always made sure they had food and clothes, got to school on time, and saw the doctor and the dentist, I was not nearly as available to them as I was before their brother came.
People often reassure me that kids are resilient; that there are benefits to having a sibling with special needs that have yet to reveal themselves. Perhaps. I hope so.
But I also know that sometimes, the fallout from a family crisis reaches very far, much further than we can imagine when we are in the midst of the crisis. I don’t know the solution; even now, thinking back on those years, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I only hoped I could meet all my kids basic needs and keep Carter alive, and by those very basic standards I’ve been successful.
All I can say to Jacob and Abbie and my stepson Spencer is, yes, it was hard, and it’s still hard. I hear your pain, and if I can help you heal, I want to do that.
And still, even now, I have to take Carter to his appointments. I have to stay with him most of the time so that his emotional life is steady. If I can help heal you, I have to do it in the in-between. There is more of that now, but it is still the in-between.
I failed, but I promise I tried to choose all of you.
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [nopointsforstyle.com].
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.